Career tip - Planning for your Digital Footprint and Afterlife

Nancy Cleman
, lawyer (Sternthal Katznelson Montigny LLP)

Recently you may have read articles on the benefits of “de-cluttering” or organizing what you have and putting your “house in order”. It is not only the clutter we see but the clutter that hides in the devices we use on a daily basis, or the “cloud”, that need to be taken into account in the process. Sometimes what we cannot see takes up much more space than we can imagine. Think of all the photos that have never been printed and live on a hard drive or memory stick. Smart phones, tablets and laptops may not weigh much but they can contain gigabytes of data. Moreover as we often avail ourselves of third party websites and use their platforms to share information and transact business. It is often more difficult to clean up what we don’t see. As we move to the online world we rely on these third party sites, email accounts and passwords to transmit, store and collect information. What happens if we are not around and no one knows how to access the information? The purpose of this short article is to encourage you to make sure that you have processes in place to address this situation.

Have you made an inventory and created a list of your current digital information such as email accounts and passwords: social media accounts; on line banking accounts and bill payments.

With the ease of technology we can sign up and establish multiple accounts. By accepting the terms of use we often agree to jurisdictions and terms far from our home base.

If an accident happens or someone dies unexpectedly, if there is no record of this critical information it may be very difficult if not impossible to gain access to these accounts and the information they contain. This may include access to client records and important emails or documents if the person who is looking after the affairs of the lawyer in question does not have the instructions or information to access the account. In addition, people may try to assume the identity of another by hiding behind an email address.

For example, Gmail and Google, and most email and social media accounts have very restrictive access policies.  By way of example, Google established an” Inactive Account Manager “program to permit people to create trustees to have access to their account information in limited circumstances. If there are no trustees designated or the person who is taking over the practice does not have access to the critical information it is a problem. This is very important and especially if you conduct your practice using a Gmail email account.  We use Google as an example but the same applies to all digital accounts, devices, email and social media accounts.

Here is an excerpt from an article entitled Plan your digital afterlife with Inactive Account Manager, posted by Andreas Tuerk, Product Manager, on the Google Public Policy Blog.

” ... The feature is called Inactive Account Manager — not a great name, we know — and you’ll find it on your Google Account settings page. You can tell us what to do with your Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if your account becomes inactive for any reason.

For example, you can choose to have your data deleted — after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity. Or you can select trusted contacts to receive data from some or all of the following services: +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube. Before our systems take any action, we’ll first warn you by sending a text message to your cell phone and email to the secondary address you’ve provided. ...”

Google provides four options to manage the account:

  • Timeout period
    You set a timeout period, after which your account can be treated as inactive. The timeout period starts with your last sign-in to your Google account.
  • Alert me
    Inactive Account Manager will alert you via text message and optionally email before the timeout period ends.
  • Notify contacts and share data
    Add trusted contacts who should be made aware that you are no longer using your account. You can also share data with them if you like.
  • Optionally delete account
    If you wish, instruct Google to delete your account on your behalf.

If you don’t have a plan for what to do with your account, this may occur:

Here is an extract from the Google help centre (View article in Help Center)

Accessing a deceased person's account

If an individual has passed away and you need access to the contents of his or her Google account, in rare cases we may be able to provide the account content to an authorized representative of the deceased user. We extend our condolences and appreciate your patience and understanding throughout this process.

At Google, we’re keenly aware of the trust users place in us, and we take our responsibility to protect the privacy of people who use Google services very seriously. Any decision to provide the contents of a deceased user’s account will be made only after a careful review, and the application to obtain account content is a lengthy process. Before you begin, please understand that Google may be unable to provide the account content, and sending a request or filing the required documentation does not guarantee that we will be able to assist you. If you are the authorized representative of a deceased user and wish to proceed with an application to obtain the contents of a deceased user’s Google account, please carefully review the following information regarding our two stage process:

Part 1

We require the following information:

  1. Your full name
  2. Your physical mailing address
  3. Your email address
  4. A photocopy of your government-issued ID or driver’s license
  5. The Gmail address or Google username (which is typically an email address) of the deceased user
  6. The death certificate of the deceased user. If the document is not in English, please provide a certified English translation prepared by a competent translator and notarized
  7. The following information from an email correspondence that you have received at your email address, from the email address associated with the Google account in question:
    • The full header from the email message. See instructions on how to find headers in Gmail and other webmail email providers. Copy everything from 'Delivered-To:' through the 'References:' line
    • The entire content of the message

Mail or fax this information to:

Google Inc.
Gmail User Support - Decedents’ Accounts
c/o Google Custodian of Records
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043
Fax: 650-644-0358

Part 2

Upon receipt of this information, Google will review your request and notify you by email as to whether or not we will be able to move beyond Part 1 to the next steps of the process. If we are able to move forward based on our preliminary review, we will send further instructions outlining Part 2 Part 2 will require you to get additional legal process including an order from a U.S. court and/or submitting additional materials. Please note that submitting these materials will not guarantee that we will be able to provide account content so we recommend not embarking on Part 2 until you hear back from us regarding Part 1. Also, some information for some products may not be available or provided even if steps 1 and 2 are completed successfully. Because of our concerns for user privacy, if we determine that we cannot provide the account content, we will not be able to share further details about the account or discuss our decision. Please note that Google may change what is required from time to time and in particular cases.”


Ask your self do I need all these accounts? If something happens to me, do my executors or Mandatary’s know my wishes? Will they be able to access my accounts, my computers? My phone? What happens if I have a social media account such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn? What if I pay all my bills on line?

Take the time to do an inventory of your digital foot print, including inventory of your Email accounts, social media accounts; on line accounts and services; loyalty cards, passwords for your digital devices.

Designate a person and inform that person of your wishes. Consider keeping a copy of this information attached to your mandate and will.

Make sure the person who is designated to care for your practice in the event of death or incapacity (art 78 of the Règlement sur la comptabilité et les normes d’exercice professionel des avocats) also will have access to this information as it relates to your practice if you are a sole practitioner.

Keep this information in a safe place ; understand and respect the privacy policy and terms of use of the service (s) you are using.

Update and review the information from time to time.

In short if precaution and arrangements are not made, important information may be lost and difficult if not impossible to recover.